On Rightnessness

Many months ago, in my early days of working with MLB bassist Jason Nickel, I was chatting with him about his many other musical projects. When he mentioned he wrote some original music, I was especially intrigued – a guy with such an original and imaginative approach to bass would likely generate some very fresh musical material. When I quizzed him further about the stuff he wrote, he quipped dismissively (to paraphrase), “everybody thinks their own music is brilliant.”

This statement did get me pondering. There was a ring of truth to what he said, but perhaps not for the reason most might suspect. The immediate impression of such a statement is that songwriters are a bunch of insular egotists, self-satisfied and insufferable.

Admittedly, I've met one or two who are – but most are not...yet most may still think their own music is generally superior – or at least has great, unique strengths. How could this sense of superiority co-exist with a small-to-medium ego?

Let's put this into a less ego-driven field. Pretend, for a moment, you'd like to put an ornamental garden in front of your residence, and you've decided you want the best garden you can afford. You look around at many other gardens, gleaning ideas, deciding what especially works and what doesn't, you brainstorm and then you get to work.

You work hard for a few weeks until the garden looks as you want it to. You've avoided the mistakes you've seen in other gardens, and amassed all the ideas you liked best into one plot. You're happy for a time. You might notice that, through inexperience, you made a few rookie mistakes, and you become sensitized to original ideas you notice in other gardens - so you strive to improve upon the original garden when opportunity presents itself.

If, at the end of all that, is it any wonder you ultimately like your own garden more than most others you see? Does that make you egotistical or insular?

Actually, it might – if, at that point, you close your mind to the possibility of further improvements and decide your garden is best merely because it's yours.

Happily, plenty of songwriters seek to continue their growth, and never grow too comfortable with their beautiful garden of songs. Most evolve very gradually over time without too many radical departures from form (say, REM or U2); some tear the old garden up completely every so often and start again with something quite different (Peter Gabriel, Brian Eno, Liz Phair); and some just trim the hedge every decade or two (AC/DC, the Rolling Stones). The artist's rate of change might have to do with how much money the artist makes with a particular formula, and how seriously they take money compared to how seriously they take their art.

Granted, a good artist is capable of seeing the quality in other work even if it's quite different from his own. That scene in Amadeus when the composer Sallieri thanks God for his great gift of composition – then curses God the next day after hearing the cad Mozart's clear superiority – certainly isn't unheard of. Jeff Beck and Pete Townshend were pretty glum after being blown away by their first exposure to Jimi Hendrix. It might not be a pleasant experience, but at least it means your ego hasn't yet deafened you to others' work - even if you take less joy than discomfort in hearing great music.

I've had cause to ponder this issue of an artist's work appealing to the artist herself quite a lot lately. To be candid, I've been stuck on a new song for weeks now. There's a verse I like a lot, a promising transition, a strong sense of the chorus needing to go someplace quite different, and even a few sketches of potential choruses...but I have not yet found a convincing way to transition into the chorus – and the lyrics, uncharacteristically, border on stream-of-consciousness obscurity. So long as I'm able to finish the lyrics, I'm okay with taking a short trip into the deep-and-meaningless – but that chorus transition won't allow me to put the pen down just yet. I'll know the right one when I hear it, but it hasn't yet appeared. I've had many fleeting moments when a new idea has sprung up and I've thought, “perhaps...this is it?” but so far, I've always come away feeling like there's a better idea, a neater 'solution' available, something I haven't yet snatched from the ether. Perhaps tomorrow.

Meanwhile, the question remains – why are all the potential ideas so far 'wrong'? Why not just jump into some catchy chorus and be done with it? Would anyone notice if the transition were not so smooth?

I suppose it would be like letting a gigantic thistle grow in that ornamental garden. It would probably bother no one but me (and the neighbouring plants), but that's quite enough to take action against that thistle. Like a movie director who has let a smidge of stage rigging remain visible in a shot, there is a risk of the listener's music-induced illusion being shattered – and that I could never consciously allow. The music must develop as emotions do – gradually, plausibly, naturally. You don't go from weeping to laughing by way of a brief coughing fit.

This adherence to a sense of 'rightness' is a songwriter's quality control department. Some songwriters listen more carefully than others to this instinct, for some it's more automatic or unconscious – and perhaps for those who write quality songs by the truckload (from Franz Schubert to Neil Finn), their gift may preclude the need for much quality control (them sonsobitches!). While fleshing out a song's finer points often leads me on a merry chase, it very rarely takes me as long as this current song, I'm happy to say. Each songwriter has a unique sense of musical rightness, among other instincts and pools of ideas. Perhaps it's that quality-control impulse that contributes to a songwriter's distinctive style...or lack thereof.

Conversely, it could just as easily be that quality-control impulse that causes a dull uniformity, a sense of cliche and/or a moribund, stagnant, conservative approach to songwriting. If you always solve the same songwriting problems with the same solutions, you're certainly in danger of repeating yourself. Approach caution with caution. As a rule, be willing to toss the rulebook every so often.

If, at the end of all that, you have a completed song, I say congratulations on your achievement; and remember the definition of the word 'achievement' according to Ambrose Bierce in his Devil's Dictionary:

The death of endeavour and the birth of disgust.

If, as a songwriter, you don't have alternating moments of elation and disgust with your own work, you're not taking enough chances. Now, go get your hands dirty.

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